Film Fever: CinemaKnights 2015

(Film Fever is a special segment dedicated to the local film festivals/screenings I participated, which is my own way of celebrating the underappreciated art of homegrown cinema.)

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For this debut section, students from the Colegio San Juan De Letran take center stage in the grueling yet fulfilling academic requirement of producing their own short film. The seven entries premiered last March 14 at the university’s annual event brilliantly coined as CINEMAKNIGHTS. The students were challenged to create short films that focus on the Filipino’s unique aspects of life, and it’s safe to stay that these college seniors surprise in attacking their corresponding topics in a subversive manner. Critically speaking, the plotted twists and turns either churn or choke the narrative but apart from the writing, the students pose potential in taking lead behind the camera (direction and cinematography) given the serious subject matters.

To see these students’ vision materialize onscreen is a step towards an auspicious filmmaker’s self-actualization. Cinema, in my opinion, is the most holistic form of art and rivalry has no place in this medium for sensible, creative freedom. Here are the seven short films in CINEMAKNIGHTS 2015, in order of their screening:

 

MESSAGE SENT

Ending with a startling reveal that evokes sympathy on its glib narrative, MESSAGE SENT is a well-intentioned portrayal of modern social connections that can either be deceptively sweet or queerly unfounded. The twist alone is subverting of expectations on how the student-filmmakers depicted the Filipinos’ reputation as the ‘texting capital of the world’. But the overall product would have been more impactful if the two lead characters were made more consistent and precise by their physical predicaments. The ending makes it easy to absolve MESSAGE SENT of its character loopholes but it’s also the same reason why I’m more critical about it. Rating: 2.0/4.0

 

LAST TWO MINUTES

A suburban look at the repercussions of gambling, LAST TWO MINUTES is a brief example of how greed makes people bleed. Titled after the crucial last minutes of basketball, the love for the sport and love for family are bonded by blood which the lead character mortally learns. The crime drama could be made visually arresting by infusing style to paint the landscape of moral degradation. The emergence of a neighborhood ‘serial killer’ was an excessive derivative of violence. But in general, the short film glimpses the brutal reality of disruption of civil peace; and how it ties poverty to the provocation of crime in the small scale shows social awareness among its young filmmakers. Rating: 3.0/4.0

       

SABADO

The cool ambiance complements its youthful appeal but SABADO disappointingly lacks the emotional depth that detaches the viewers from the characters. The coming-of-age short film subtlety imparts the ‘suicidal’ decisiveness of its two leads but the uninspired exposition and one-dimensional character treatment don’t warrant emotional investment from the audience. Though it made privy of the teens’ self-imposed ponderings of existential crisis, SABADO is too engrossed in its own teenage ethos than validating its endgame. It’s a misdirected and incomprehensible approach on self-consciousness whose message is further lost from bland and uncharismatic characters. Rating: 1.5/4.0

 

SELDA

Independent film star Mercedes Cabral appears to be this short film’s biggest catch but SELDA strives in its political resonance and not in its star power (a good thing since the thematic element isn’t eclipsed; but one can only speculate the production budget). The thin (and improvised) prison wall separating the rich and the poor is an understatement on how closely related their individual stories are (as ably achieved by the editing). The intersecting stories of the two criminals make them both victims and suspects of the vicious cycle called fate but the flawed justice system plays dice (in the form of bail) to determine whom it will favor. SELDA is a crude yet decent socio-political anecdote, effective but not necessarily efficient in telling its prison story. Rating: 3.0/5.0

 

LOST PLATE

Its troubled production doesn’t reflect on the outcome but perhaps subjectively, the lead actor is to blame. LOST PLATE is the most ambitious in the lineup, a one-man show that doesn’t captivate on its brooding night drive. The heavy traffic along EDSA is a perfect avenue for a long and fruitful rumination of one’s life choices, regrets and aspiration (shown in three splices of the actor where the editing excels). Those would at least be redolent but the lead actor’s aloofness makes his character apathetic instead of brokering intimacy with the viewer. Somewhere in the middle, the audience will ask what makes this character important and worth the watch as he floods the screen with philosophical and personal ramblings. The dialogue is well-rounded but in a claustrophobic setting where viewers are coerced to connect to a single character, an effective actor would reach the desired destination. Rating: 2.0/5.0

 

BALOTA NGA

Weak dialogue hurts BALOTA NGA’s credibility but the drama about the trade of Philippine elections finishes stronger with the subtle parallel stories of father-and-son in a political backdrop. The subdued close focusing on Richard Quan’s rueful smile divulges a generational story of amoral beginnings. We see sons who replace their fathers in their instituted government seat and sons who follow their fathers’ footstep in administering electoral fraud. Corruption corrodes the line between right and wrong which has been the accepted way of life. The cinematic execution is imperfect but the thematic content remains intact and more profound than expected. Quan’s pitiful expressions make him an effective, reluctant conspirator of moral ambiguity. Rating: 2.5/5.0

 

THE CRAMMING

Based on audience reaction, THE CRAMMING is a clear favorite that tickled with the recognizable student’s fury of procrastination. But the short film is nothing but superficial, more of an interlude than a body of art. They say ignorance is bliss but in a comedy born out of its characters’ ignorance, there’s nothing much to ponder. The playful editing is attention-grabbing but isn’t enough to salvage this amateur and silly glance on student life. Rating: 1.0/4.0

 

Movie posters grabbed from CinemaKnight’s Facebook page.

The short films were screened from March 16-20 at Colegio San Juan de Letran.

Disclosure:

The writer has affinity with one of the student-filmmakers.

Movie Review: The Babadook, Mockingjay: Part 1

Both a picture of terror born out of personal grief and political rebellion, The Babadook and Mockingjay: Part 1 (respectively) are female-focused and genre-based films that are thematically powerful in challenging the vulnerabilities of the leads bounded by their overbearing environment. The outcome doesn’t dissolve into a serene ending as the struggle against the internal and external demons remain existent. But as these female protagonists show, the change in attitude towards these forces flicks the switch to resilience. Not to undermine the frightening black creature and the foreboding white roses, The Babadook and Mockingjay: Part 1 open the floor to a thought-provoking discussion on the seeds of general fear and wrath; and the fruits are ripened fiction that more than tickles one’s imagination.

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THE BABADOOK

I personally tend to avoid this genre (simply because it’s not my favorite film type) but Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent breaks the spell of bloody and mindless horror through the humble abode of Amelia, her son Samuel, and the nightmarish book character haunting them. THE BABADOOK abandons the superficial gimmicks to instill fear; only to derive terror from the ambiguous perception of its lead characters that will make viewers clutch to their subconscious to decipher the truth behind the mysterious domesticity of man and monster. The hatted eponymous creature is simply distressing in ominous black (with white details making it lifelike) but the real horror originates from Amelia (Essie Davis) whose vulnerability as a grieving, depressed and detached mother makes her the more terrifying character and the perfect medium for the babadook’s unwelcome nuisances. Similar to the disturbing content of Samuel’s book, THE BABADOOK is to be read between the lines. The underlying horror (in the form of Amelia) is no less authentic because the taboo of an unloving mother is real, making the film a thought-provoking allegory on the horrors of motherhood. In a movie that questions its characters’ state of mind, THE BABADOOK successfully infuses the influence of grief and depression, thus effectively invading the psychological tone of the genre. The ending is consistent on its cautionary tale: the fictional monster is a metaphor of Amelia’s traumas that devour her sanity due to her refusal of moving on from the tragedy of seven years passed. The babadook locked yet placated in the basement is Amelia’s unresolved thoughts stowed in her subconscious which she doesn’t have to revisit unless necessary. Such thematic elements make THE BABADOOK a more clever, sympathetic and genuine horror film that best captures the true horrors of one’s wounded psychology.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

 

MOCKINGJAY: PART 1

The third installment of the highly successful The Hunger Games Series, the MOCKINGJAY: PART 1 broadens Panem’s cinematic world in a more politically inclined landscape that sees Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stepping up her role as an icon of revolution post-Quarter Quell. The overall result is an unhurried yet confident establishment of events that implants the catalysts for the franchise’s explosive conclusion. The addition of veteran actors Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman strengthens the more complex and mature nature of the war between the districts and the Capitol that overshadows the teenage angst which initially sparked the rebellion. But the inner political dispute is also present as Katniss bargains with the key players of District 13 who merely sees her as a public image for their civil cause. Lawrence once again resonates in her vivid portrayal whose character growth is rooted in Katniss’ recognition of her role in the revolution and acceptance of the black wings of the mockingjay in her own volition. MOCKINGJAY: PART 1 is less visually stirring in the action department but it is the essential trough that tackles the consequences of unrest in fictional dystopia. While the stoic infrastructure and harrowing rubbles corroborate the gloomy environment onscreen, additional merit goes to the film’s official soundtrack that morphs the eloquence of civil and political disorder with futuristic soundscapes courtesy of album curator Lorde, particularly the rebellious introspection of Yellow Flicker Beat. Overall, The Hunger Games Series is a rare young adult adaptation that proved to be a standalone material from the book and while MOCKINGJAY: PART 1 will find readers more tolerant in terms of the narrative, it’s a remarkable testament on how the film has grown — not by its commercial returns but on how it embraces serious subject matters that are treated as equally important as the inner conflicts of its prized heroine.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

“Shakespearean Frustration”: Thoughts on Homeland PaleyFest and S05 Spoilers

Finally I get to watch PaleyFest LA: Homeland and I guess I’m writing this as a way to process all that was said during and before the panel (a.k.a. the interviews). Homeland headlining PaleyFest LA’s in its opening night makes me prouder of this show. I can only imagine what the brilliant team had gone through in developing this intelligent series and I’m glad the writers were present to tell them first-hand (at least for the scope of S04). Only two actors (Claire Danes and Maury Sterling) attended the panel (from the original five – Mandy Patinkin, Tracy Letts and Mark Moses) but that didn’t diminish the quality of the discussion which turned out to be a well-rounded and more in-depth in terms of dissecting the components on what makes this show so spectacular. It was also my first time to watch Claire Danes be herself and I was so amazed (and amused) by her vocabulary (not that I need a dictionary to understand her) and how animated she was as an interviewee. I’m also saddened that executive producers (EP) and writers Alexander Cary and Chip Johannessen are leaving the show; they wrote many of my favorite episodes and it makes me wary of how S05 will play out. Speaking of, showrunner Alex Gansa’s so-called teaser rocked fans (I could say for the Tumblr fandom) and I have to scramble back to my seat to rationalize my reaction a.k.a. this post.

 

Inside the writer’s room

The Season 4 writers were all present to provide insights on their respective episodes, varying from the intense (“There’s Something Else Going On”), controversial (“About A Boy”), bewildering (“Redux”) and the debatable (“Long Time Coming”). That hour glimpsed the dynamic of the brains behind the show and enlightens how each plotline was developed (like Brody’s return and the Aayan affair). Personally, listening to them was an enriching experience because I really admire the show’s ambitious concept and to see it unravel onscreen born out of their crazy ideas is just mind-blowing. Apart from the writing and directing, Homeland doesn’t get much credit on the other elements such as the production design (e.g. transforming and improvising parts of South Africa to become Pakistan) and sound design (the eerie score during Carrie’s hallucinatory trip) so it’s value-adding to hear how the crew pull them off to produce ‘reality’ in terms of the location and Carrie’s perception. But I single-out EP and writer Meredith Steihm for being a fierce advocate and defender of her written episodes and proposed plot developments (particularly the Carrie-Quinn romance). Her answers were very precise and she seems to exact the strongest conviction in terms of justifying those narrative progress (aside from Gansa). She acknowledges the gender divide among her co-writers and I appreciate how she treats Carrie and Quinn not as characters (vs. the male writers’ disagreement in their romance) but as real people. So it’s her and Gansa that I (we?) should be grateful for despite being outnumbered in the consensus.

 

Little teaser, big reactions

You can hear the audience’s gasps when Gansa announced Season 5’s magic words in a top-down approach: 2.5 years. Europe. Germany. Carrie not anymore an intelligence officer. I was only expecting a time jump of less than a year but 2.5 years is a lot in a way that many events within that time frame had transpired that would probably not be shown in Season 5. Also (though not described officially) the new season somehow serves as a reboot because the show has to start all over again with a new story and reshuffled dynamics among the principal cast, along with the new supporting characters. Cary and Johannessen’s departure makes the future bleaker since they were more involved with the development of the characters for four seasons than those who’ll fill their shoes. But I reconcile with the fact that Season 5 can bring a new spin to the series along with new ideas from the new writers. The thing is, Homeland is an ever developing, evolving and in Claire’s words “peripatetic” show which I want it to be in the first place. I guess my reasoning is that the first three seasons focused on deconstructing Carrie’s psychology in a more familiar and close environment (where Brody plays a huge part) and that the succeeding seasons will see her still coping with her sickness but is more empowered, enlightened and exposed to the challenges overseas (if Season 4’s Pakistan is any indication). Canon states that Carrie is no stranger on being assigned abroad but that was Carrie before who she is now. Her character development is in sync to where each season is set (for instance, her ‘calcified’ and ‘fossilized’ state in Islamabad as station chief that was resolved by her catharsis). I’m really curious on how the writers will connect Season 5’s location to Carrie’s personal journey (why does she choose Berlin to atone for her sins?) and it’s just one of the many reasons why I’m excited for the new season.

Will Season 5 begin with Saul as the returning CIA director? Is Quinn still in Syria because of his unfinished mission? Or does he finish it, doesn’t contact Carrie and stays in the CIA? There are so many questions on what will be the characters’ state of mind in Season 5. One that really rattled me was the likelihood of Carrie and Quinn not seeing each other in 2.5 years that was aggravated by the plan of introducing Carrie’s new boyfriend as part of the normalcy she would be treated in Season 5. Initially I was given the impression that the romance between Carrie and Quinn has dissolved and she opted to carry on with her life for her sake and Franny’s. If I were her, I would do the same but that doesn’t mean that her feelings for Quinn were extinguished. Whether they’ll be finally an item or not, all I long for Carrie is to have a normal, peaceful and happy life regardless if there’s a romantic interest involved or be content with her daughter. I found myself invested in C/Q more than I intended to be which dragged on my ill-conceived disappointment. It’s futile to speculate but at the end of the day, I’ll keep my faith on the writers who have beautifully constructed their relationship. The new arrangement could possibly open ways to make the Carrie-Quinn dynamic more compelling, be it in a professional or personal nature. Quinn and Saul are Carrie’s more pronounced connections and to state an example, just look at how the Carrie-Saul dynamic was excellently handled in Season 4. I’m still aboard with the ship and it’ll all depend if there’s an iceberg to threaten it in Season 5.

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That’s what I had to say, for now. At least there’s no discussion of a season finale (yet). Hopefully in the coming weeks, casting news and other production developments will keep Season 5 on the radar until its first promo is released. Part of my excitement is my optimism that the show will be able to replicate the success of Season 4 and I’m pretty sure the writers have many tricks under their sleeves in terms of plotting new conflicts and Carrie’s new personal journey. As for C/Q, 2.5 years is a long wait but just imagining their first meeting would make their bottled frustrations explode. Mine too.

Movie Review: “That Thing Called Tadhana”

“There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.” I guess it’s also the same for romance immortalized on print and onscreen. Love will always be the most inevitable destination but the journey is what distinguishes the many love stories that had come and go. THAT THING CALLED TADHANA throws many hints of where Anthony (JM De Guzman) and Mace (Angelica Panganiban)’s spontaneous excursion could ultimately lead to. But creator Antoinette Jadaone is clever enough to detour from clichés to make a refreshing, introspective and inspired love story that is destined to be much more sensible and superior than its mainstream predecessors.

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The breakout hit of the 2014 Cinema One Originals Film Festival, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA is unabashedly romantic yet shrewdly adventurous on narrating the deepening emotional bond of its leads. Those who are familiar with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise will recognize TADHANA’s similar set-up: two strangers who explore a beautiful locale and talk about anything under the sun. But being smitten at each other in less than 24 hours like Jesse and Celine is not TADHANA’s eventual fate. The pop cultural references in Jadaone’s independent film are apparent, including shout-outs on local releases Don’t Give Up On Us (2006) and One More Chance (2007). But distinctly, TADHANA strolls on its pragmatic vision of romance. It playfully debunks the reel and real aspects of love: from the romance flicks’ weepy tendencies and physiology of the ideal leading man to the outlets of heartbreak and the rocky road to recovery. It doesn’t hurry developing romance between Anthony and Mace; rather, broadens the viewer’s perception of two heartbroken characters during their impulsive outing for emotional relief. Unlike the showy declarations of love from flimsy stories onscreen, TADHANA is teeming with rewarding realizations about failed relationship and crushed aspirations – though cynic in context are optimistic especially as the film closes in an open-ended second chance for love. TADHANA is already learned of its contemporaries’ generic errors to become effective in fulfilling its own romantic destiny…

 

“I don’t need tissue!” is just one of Mace’s (Panganiban) many outbursts

…that it forges through its candid and concise screenplay. Talky and teasing of Mace and Anthony’s undeniable chemistry, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA (in good faith) betrays what its trailer implies as ‘finding love in country’s coldest place’. In fact, TADHANA doesn’t trek that route and instead becomes a brooding journey that starts separately for Mace and Anthony. In narrating the familiar scenario of boy-meets-girl, Jadaone remarkably surprises on creating the duo’s engaging exchanges peppered of witticism and wisdom. Except on the announcement of their sudden trip to Baguio, TADHANA abandons the unnecessary expositions of what, where, how and why and engrosses on who – Mace and Anthony whose platonic relationship is the compass of the romantic comedy. It’s a delight to see them bantering at each other but the brilliance of TADHANA’s script is the ingenious juxtaposition of every scene like a compilation of anecdotes that humanizes the characters in the process. Every scene noticeably begins with an idea which they discuss and later on connect to their individual stories, making the dialogues more resonant to the viewer. (For instance, when Mace admitted she can’t watch Don’t Give Up On Us because she saw it with her ex-boyfriend, that led to Anthony’s questioning actor John Lloyd Cruz’s appeal as a romantic leading man and finally his quip to Mace which is the first sentence of this review.)

Every presented idea (be it abstract or based on personal experience) is new and the context is not repeated on the succeeding scenes, making Mace and Anthony’s interactions more dynamic, unpredictable and realistic. Abundant of touché puns, their conversations are frank and reasonably uncensored, especially when addressing heartbreaks. But what I really appreciate is how Jadaone segues beyond the romantic aspect to give layers to her characters. Mace and Anthony’s toast to the people they would, are and will be are equally (if not exceedingly) affecting to the sulking at their break-ups. TADHANA triumphs on its playful subtlety through meaningful metaphors, particularly Mace’s luggage troubles. Those scenes don’t only speak of her emotional baggage but also shows how she deals with them regardless of the weight. Not to mention the smart personification in Mace’s short story that is important to the film’s parting message. It takes a lot of creativity to repackage the common themes of a romantic comedy but TADHANA is cleverly written, developed to be immune of those faults and cunningly articulate than what its title suggests.

 

Bus ride to Baguio.

What makes THAT THING CALLED TADHANA such a rewarding rom-com is that the so-called “soul-searching journey” is a two-way manifestation for the characters and the viewers. Mace releases her baggage: sorrow and anger but the real challenge is her response when the ex-boyfriend turns up at her doorstep to seek reconciliation. Meanwhile, Anthony who willingly accompanies Mace in her sudden Baguio trip becomes emotionally attached, to the point of admitting his feelings in the most ambitious and creative way. As for the audience, it was satisfying to realize the precedent of the phrase ‘that thing called tadhana’ (destiny) narrative-wise. It’s not like Mace will immediately jump into a dalliance after a long-term relationship nor Anthony slipping to flirtation to ignite romance. Maybe fate led Mace and Anthony together, but apart from the literal meaning, TADHANA builds on its characters’ intimacy rather than imposing chemistry at the expense of the story. The script will always be superior to the actors and that’s how an onscreen love story should work – by being convincing of the romance it sparked through words. Yet TADHANA also scores in its casting of Panganiban (who won Best Actress in the said film festival) and De Guzman who are instrumental in breathing Mace and Anthony’s palpable personalities (compared to the passable portrayals in English Only, Please). Perhaps it also helped that Panganiban can also associate with Mace’s romantic history while De Guzman is natural as Anthony in the incredulity and sincerity of his character. The cinematography is as crisp as the leads’ genuine emotions while the visual interplay during the contemplative voice-overs makes for a perfect and poignant match.

 

One of the scenes reminiscent of ‘Before Sunrise’ 

I mostly applauded the film’s technicalities (specifically the script) but if you ask what I personally think, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA not only exceeds my expectations for a romantic comedy but easily becomes my favorite. Not that I acknowledge it as a “hugot” film but I simply love its witty treatment of the genre. It’s the most sensible and organic love story that doesn’t have to consummate a kiss or pronounce ‘I love you-s’. It doesn’t bait its characters to a desperate search for love but naturally have love find them. It is focused on developing intimacy and discernment between two protagonists in the most economical way, unlike other films that are overpopulated by distracting personas. It offers a rare, enriching experience of romantic realizations than just the superficial kiligs. The cherry on top is the parallel story of Mace’s “The Arrow with a Heart Pierced through Him” that shines TADHANA‘s poetic charm, an enlightening take on companionship that speaks volume on Mace and Anthony’s special bond.

Pun intended, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA is a shot right through the heart. It’s a hopeless romantic-wordsmith’s retelling of one of love’s most common clichés and creates a story memorable of witty romanticism. Jadaone instantly becomes one of the exciting local filmmakers whose interpretation of love is both intriguing and knowing. Though Whitney Houston gets her share in the film’s tagline ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go‘, it’s a nice change for an OPM song (Up Dharma Down’s Tadhana) to take the final bow. TADHANA is a tangible assurance that hope is not yet lost for the genre (even if it sporadically churns quality films). All it asks is to keep a little fate.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Movie Review: The Spectacular Now

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I decided to watch the 2013 Sundance hit The Spectacular Now starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley; and to my amazement, it’s more than just the romance between two divergent (see what I did there) teenagers that made me love it. It’s an endearing coming-of-age film that deserves much more credit on its layered storytelling about the urgency of youth. It shines on its deep portrayal of teenagers; and its natural beauty unfolding onscreen is truly spectacular to behold.

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An ordinary love story made extraordinary by its narrative maturity and genuine acting, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is one of the best (and if I may add) and special coming-of-age dramas I’ve seen. At face value, it doesn’t lack the charm in the likes of Teller, Woodley and Brie Larson who relive teenage glory in the formative years of high school. Relatability is the core of this genre and while the film is inviting of personal memories and/or the sheer similarities among Sutter, Aimee and Cassidy, it’s the ingenious treatment of the characters that captivates me the most. The level of discernment among the leads makes THE SPECTACULAR NOW more than just a cheeky escapade for adolescent validation. It’s both conscious and selfless on its spontaneous dalliance that unwarrantedly leads to personal growth. No other teen film has gracefully addressed the concept of inescapable future and carpe diem. Succinctly, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is an empowered and affecting portrait of teenage sensibility that feels more real than it should be because of how lifelike and truthful it could be.

 

vlcsnap-2015-02-13-22h14m20s157First meeting.

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

Sutter (Teller) and Aimee (Woodley) are like comets that rarely pass the earth, albeit in the film’s universe, crossed each other’s path (or lawn) by chance even though they go to the same high school. They bear the classic DNAs of teenage typecasts: Sutter as the happy-go-lucky and life-of-the-party alcoholic while Aimee is the smart and pretty wallflower. THE SPECTACULAR NOW impresses on how it doesn’t pass judgment on its characters. Instead, it sinks into their soulfulness that soon calibrates the story. With the uncertainty of the future as its endgame, the film lingers on how Sutter and Aimee become each other’s biggest influence since their coincidental encounter. Their relationship starts platonic: Aimee unabashedly lets Sutter inside her sheltered life of science fiction and manga while he guilefully takes her to parties and introduces her first sip of alcohol. Pensive as she is, Aimee could be aware that Sutter still keeps his eyes on his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Larson). Nevertheless, it’s the conviction she found through him that Aimee decides for her future away from home. Her love doesn’t evolve out of desperation (since Sutter is the first guy who took interest at her) but it was organic as she perceives the goodness in him that he couldn’t see.

Sutter’s influence on her eventfully materializes, but like his tolerance to alcohol, Sutter has yet to swallow his sorrows until Aimee’s accident served as his wakeup call. It was not until Aimee’s urging (for his peace of mind) that Sutter finally visits his estranged father who fueled his intoxicated anger and misery. Sutter’s reliance on his drinking to cope with his faulty opinions on his mother and misaligned persistence on Cassidy becomes less of a defense mechanism as Aimee keeps him company ardently. The ‘incident’ scarred Sutter, realizing that his inebriated alter-ego is no good for Aimee and his desire to change himself for the better is ignited to be more deserving of her love.

 

Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (Shailene Woodley)

Teller and Woodley are equally the source of THE SPECTACULAR NOW’s genuine charisma as their emotional depth radiate onscreen, be it Sutter’s pent-up frustrations or Aimee’s unrequited warmth that are nothing short of natural and spirited acting. But beyond the youthful façade evoking sentimentality is its emotive ripeness that stands out in the genre. THE SPECTACULAR NOW is successful on its precocious and unpretentious treatment of characters whose insecurities are bridged to something bigger than themselves. Sutter and Aimee are perceived not as capricious teenagers but are empowered as impassioned individuals anticipating the future (in their case: life after graduation). The film cultivates a mature environment with a profound grasp on reality, shaping sage characters through the process. The screenplay is eloquent on the instrumentality of Sutter and Aimee’s influence on each other towards their personal growth. Seeing their character development was both bittersweet and redeeming after all the hurt they’d gone through, especially Sutter who saved himself from drowning on his family woes and lack of ambition. Apart from the story’s resonance, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is simply glowing of palpable human intensity that empathy is the least to define how potent this film is. One way or another, it’s a precise retelling of someone’s history (or even a part of our own) and the film’s translucent genuineness makes viewers want to care more.

Adapted from Tim Thorp’s novel, THE SPECTACULAR NOW deftly balances the humor and heart of the young – restless on the present and sober towards the future. It is sweetened by an endearing cast and seasoned by the dramatic gravitas of realistic proportions. This coming-of-age film witnesses the growth of its characters; not coerced but raw and unhurried. As Sutter and Aimee’s romantic and personal journey shows, change should come inherent and it begins now.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

And my Oscar goes to… (2015 edition)

In the spirit of the awards season (and as the annual game for film enthusiasts), here’s my Oscar ballot for 2015. This list doesn’t entirely predict the winners on Sunday but it could interest you to see the films based on my choices. It was an upsetting year that glared the lack of diversity among the nominees and robbed those who more deserve the recognition. Still, here’s to hoping that the Academy has a knack for pleasant surprises. And if not, perhaps 2016 would be a better year for the rightful films.

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Best Sound Editing: American Sniper (It’s a tough call. Pun not intended.)

Best Sound Mixing: Birdman‘s background drum encore is one of the film’s beguiling features but how Whiplash makes every instrument palpable and be part of something bigger than the band gives this movie so much electrifying presence.

Best Make-up and Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Visual Effects: This is the most competitive category with the likes of Captain America 2, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and X-Men: Days of Future Past in contention. But my choice would be personal.

Best Original Song: I didn’t expect ‘Lost Stars’ from Begin Again to make the cut but maybe (and I’m predicting here), Selma‘s Glory will get the sentiments’ vote (and perhaps it’s only chance of nabbing an Oscar).

Best Original Score: I’m still bitter Gone Girl wasn’t nominated. The Theory of Everything won the award in the Golden Globes. But Hans Zimmer’s unconventional work in Interstellar is the dark horse.

Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Film Editing: Not to undermine Boyhood‘s 12-years of hard work to make a complete picture of childhood (it could win though) but I’m wishing Whiplash wins. The slick editing of The Grand Budapest Hotel comes in third.   

Best Cinematography: This is the second most competitive category. The Academy could award Birdman with its out-of-the-box camerawork but Ida‘s cinematography is so elegant and dramatic whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel is flawlessly playful. (That would be a back-to-back win for the Gravity cinematographer; though it speaks the irony of Birdman‘s appealing screen presence but hollow narrative.)

Best Documentary Feature: CitizenFour

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida (Poland)

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Adapted Screenplay: WGA winner The Imitation Game was a handsomely-made bio-pic but I want an upset win by Whiplash.

Best Original Screenplay: Foxcatcher is so underrated in this category that it deserves more recognition. I’m torn between The Grand Budapest Hotel (40%) and Boyhood (60%) – a win would seal its chance for Best Picture.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette was the most natural and heartbreaking in Boyhood.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons for Whiplash will always match my tempo.

Best Actress: Julianne Moore is long overdue but Rosamund Pike was such a mesmerizing revelation in Gone Girl.

Best Actor: People are betting between in Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton but Steve Carell‘s chilling transformation in Foxcatcher just blew me away.

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Picture: The Grand Budapest will sweep the technical awards but the dedication and sentimentality offered by Boyhood will win (sorry not sorry for Birdman).

 

P.S.

I skipped the Documentary Short Subject, Short Film – Animated and Short Film – Live Action categories because I wasn’t familiar on the nominees. I’m more likely wrong on the lead actor categories but I’m counting on The Grand Budapest Hotel to earn the most number of Oscar wins while Whiplash to make the surprising ones. I’d still count how many categories did I get correctly. ;)

Awards Circle: Boyhood, Birdman (Part 2)

BIRDMAN (or ‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’)

How do I make my case here… My initial reaction on BIRDMAN was the same as 2013’s American Hustle. Both were critically-acclaimed, flashy comedic ensembles which in my opinion are hyped than what they’re worth. Succeeding the ostentatious 70’s costume party of bluffers, an egoistic troupe of praise-thirsty theater actors pressure themselves to be more authentic than what their craft requires, and get caught up in their self-proclaimed genius. Maybe it’s Hollywood guffawing at the absurdities of its industry who are more eager to please themselves than the viewers. Maybe it’s the black comedy’s pseudo-surrealist take of an aging actor’s ‘existential crisis’ (which is the candid alternate to the melodrama of Black Swan’s similar sadistic fate) that make it so epic. Or maybe it’s show business hurrahing its fondness for big comebacks in the likes of Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. The satirical swag and star power blasted off BIRDMAN since its Venice International Film Festival debut. But to be honest, there isn’t really too much to brag in Director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s latest film. The deprecating humor is touché but BIRDMAN is a crazed tableau, too engrossed on its stage presence and is nothing more once the curtains are closed. Plainly put, it’s Hollywood irrelevantly, not irreverently, making fun of itself – which makes it (somewhere between) a fool or a genius. You tell me.

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Behind the scenes of Birdman

Brushing the hostility aside, BIRDMAN is a unique exhibition of film-making, or in kinder words, a trail-blazer in its field. The film’s technical team succeeds in pulling off a different feel of its unflattering setting. It doesn’t digitally alter the dull insides of the theater building; rather, it plays with the viewer’s perception by shooting BIRDMAN to appear as if it’s a 119-minute long, single-take movie. Such meticulousness behind the camera (credits to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who won the Oscar for Gravity, e.g. the breathtaking 10-minute exospheric shot of planet Earth) is itself commendable. The beguiling visual design and unconventional drum score parading Riggan Thomson’s restlessness effectively conjures a surrealist view in a modern setting that adds to the film’s spatial ‘hook’. There’s something about how the camera tracks the cast (and linger at them during climatic monologues) that the viewers are kept fixated. Thematically, this is how BIRDMAN works: it is nestled on the characters’ constant need and want of attention. From the external adoration of huge ticket sales and positive theater reviews, to the varying degrees of narcissism, the film is flamboyant at its finest. But that doesn’t excuse itself from its polarizing self-consciousness.

 

 Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) backstage

BIRDMAN’s so-called brilliance comes from its uncanny execution of ‘life imitating art imitating life’. In that case, each of the characters is a mild/exaggerated representation of the stereotypes in Hollywood: the aging actor pining for a comeback (Keaton), the in-demand and audacious performer (Norton), the struggling actress aiming for her career break (Naomi Watts), the tolerant yet pressured producer (Zach Galifianakis) and the top critic whom everyone tries to please (Lindsay Duncan). But in its cheeky attempt to recreate the business of show business in Riggan’s eyes, what the audience can only perceive is the one-dimensional importance BIRDMAN parades around. I try to understand the reasoning behind the film’s universal acclaim. Sure it’s showy in terms of the acting (Norton > Emma Stone > Keaton) and the cinematography. But contrary the visual treat, what message does BIRDMAN want to send? (Warning: bird puns) It’s not exactly a raven that delivers a context that could fall among the following: (a) the cautionary tale of making a comeback; (b) the existential crisis of living in a world where one’s relevance is at stake; and (c) the unspoken trauma and dangerous ambition of working in Hollywood in the form of the nagging Birdman. Rather, I see a parrot that doesn’t say anything coherent and new to make itself matter thematically.

There are many other films that address the quest and consequences of stardom (or a comeback that’s not limited to Hollywood) which greatly benefit from a deeper characterization; whereas BIRDMAN only flies around with vanity written in varying degrees among its characters. The last scene, which ponders on Riggan’s myth, is most guilty of intolerable narcissism on film. Instead of challenging Sam’s blistering honesty, Director Innaritu ignores this most important sentiment and proceeds with Riggan’s self-styled artistic genius. The more the film prods on its alleged relevance, the more it becomes ineffective and unconvincing of its aspirations. BIRDMAN’s isn’t a story of reinvention but self-preservation born out of conceit. It clamors for import through its satirical depiction of Hollywood but unfortunately becomes too self-important in the process. (Spoiler) To brand its flawed lead as ‘compelling’, Riggan throws himself out of the window and let viewers bask on his irrational method of validation. All I’m saddled with is a glamorized gimmick that talks too much but tells little to justify on why it should matter.

 

 Sam (Emma Stone) confronting her father, Riggan

I, too, was excited to see the ‘greatness’ of BIRDMAN. The restiveness among the characters was a thrill to watch (a cathartic combustion of 2014’s best ensemble) while the cinematography was, at first, a strange experience but it eventually won me over. However, with so much focus on the obvious, it forgot to be subtle; the movie’s overall message went lost in its ego. Worse, it’s criminally overlooked.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

 

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Since this post wraps up my reviews of the Best Picture nominees, here’s my “official” ranking: (linked to my Letterboxd account): 1. The Grand Budapest Hotel 2. Whiplash 3. Boyhood 4. Selma 5. The Imitation Game 6. Birdman 7. The Theory of Everything 8. American Sniper

 

Photos grabbed from Eclipse MagazineThe Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap